Once Upon a Time in Marketing: The Power of Storytelling

UPDATED: November 25, 2022
PUBLISHED: November 25, 2022
Once Upon a Time in Marketing: The Power of Storytelling

“There is a reason humans are so fascinated with stories,” says Nancy Duarte, author of DataStory: Explain Data and Inspire Action Through Story and Illuminate: Ignite Change Through Speeches, Stories, Ceremonies, and Symbols. “People are interested in transformation, and in a well-told story; they see themselves in that story.” According to Duarte, the classic three-part story structure is:

  1. Set up the hero—a likable, but flawed, individual—and the challenge they must face.
  2. The hero faces difficulty, which they work to overcome.
  3. The hero emerges, transformed.

“When we see people overcoming roadblocks, it gives us hope, and that creates an emotional connection,” Duarte says. Applied to business, this means we want to support entrepreneurs whom we identify as those heroes, or products that help its customers be that hero. If two products are equal in value with the same benefits and outcome, we will choose the product that we connect to emotionally every time. “But to get there, you have to tell a human story that connects your story to a higher purpose,” Duarte says. “Don’t talk about making stuff just to make stuff. Tell a story about products that make the soul sing or make the world a better place.”

This simple story structure can be applied powerfully to any facet of your business, says Peter Guber, Chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, co-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and author of Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story. Position your employees as the hero of the company story to achieve goals, identify vendors and partners as the hero to bolster synergies, or find ways to insert the customer into the role of hero or heroine.

Guber points to Under Armour, the athletic wear maker that capitalized on an untapped mass market for performance apparel by positioning the customer as the star of their own story. “They asked customers: ‘What do you want to be? A great dancer, a terrific yoga practitioner, a successful golfer? This product will help you be the hero of your own narrative,’” says Guber. “The product became a supporting player in the customer’s vision statement.”

To find and cultivate powerful stories, listen to what your customers and employees are talking about, says Paul Smith, author of The 10 Stories Great Leaders Tell.

Smith says his heart broke a little to learn the story of a Pizza Hut in Springdale, Arkansas. One evening after the store closed, a woman came in and asked the employee for a meatball sandwich. Upon being told the restaurant didn’t offer such a meal, she explained that her husband was in stage four cancer and had lost his appetite—except that he now craved a meatball sandwich. The employee improvised with a meatball from the spaghetti, pizza sauce and garlic bread and charged a reasonable price.

The next day the woman called the store to say her husband had passed away after eating the sandwich and that “there wasn’t much she could do to give him comfort, but that he ate and loved the sub, and it gave her solace to provide what would be her husband’s last meal.”

What saddens Smith is that this story was never shared outside the company. “A fabulous story like that shows what great customer service looks like, and it could be used for all kinds of reputation-building,” he says. “Businesspeople think these emotional stories are inappropriate in the workplace. But if people are talking about it, it means it’s a good story. And if it’s a good story inside the company, it’s a good story outside the company.”

Case Studies

Trupanion: Making insurance cuddly

“Insurance is an unemotional product at the end of day. It’s two pieces of paper and a staple,” said Anne Tomsic, who previously served as vice president of communication for pet insurer Trupanion. “In order for our people to share it effectively, we have to be able to bring it to life.”

In the year after Tomsic was hired (she is currently the co-founder and CEO of Preventative Vet), Trupanion produced several real-life video stories. Featured on the company YouTube channel, these videos tell heart-wrenching stories of how the pet insurance helped people pay for lifesaving procedures for their pets. 

While certainly compelling to pet owners, showing these videos to veterinarians—gatekeepers of whether pet insurance is accepted or recommended at their practice—garnered the most success for the company. “We [heard] stories from our sales team in the field that veterinarians [said], ‘It’s not my responsibility to promote pet insurance,’” Tomsic said. “But after watching the video, they [asked] for more information and often [changed] their minds.”

In addition to being shown at industry events and trade shows, these customer story videos were emailed to new customers upon buying the insurance. “People [emailed] right back and [said], ‘Wow, we made the right choice,’” Tomsic said.

Kona Ice: Story time for franchisees

Tony Lamb loves telling the story of how he was inspired to start Kona Ice, the gourmet ice cream truck franchise he launched in 2007. As the story goes, Lamb, his wife and four kids had just moved into their new suburban home and were in the backyard when they heard an ice cream truck’s jingle. “Even though my kids had never heard that sound, they instinctively knew what it was,” Lamb said. The family came to the front yard to greet the vendor and encountered a less-than-appetizing sight: “A 1972 Chevy converted van rolls around with smoke bellowing out, and the guy driving is a total derelict smoking a cigarette,” Lamb said, laughing. “My daughter literally screamed in horror before she managed to order her Popsicle.”

Lamb has a gregarious, funny way of telling the story that makes any listener chuckle, and nearly everyone hearing his story can relate. By starting Kona Ice in 2007, Lamb wanted to capitalize on the familiarity of that ice cream truck jingle and to create a new, positive and family-friendly image associated with the ice cream truck experience. This story and information about how-to seminars are posted on the company website, accessible by password, to engage and educate interested and committed Kona Ice truck owners. People relate to Lamb, and that makes his job selling franchises that much easier. “People are always telling me how much they can relate to that story, and they are often surprised to find me to be such an approachable guy,” he said. “In no way do I come off as this mega-guru.”

This low-key approach is consistent with Kona Ice’s franchise model, which requires a $20,000 franchise fee and a fixed rate of royalty fees depending on the number of years you work as a franchisee. “That is the kind of business we like to run, and it works,” Lamb says. The company currently has over 1,000 franchises in 48 states. 

Greensations: People trust a tale of failure

Wayne Perry has parlayed the failure of a past business into the success of a current one. In 2003, with just $350, Perry invented Sinus Buster, which he says was the first hot-pepper nasal spray intended as a headache reliever. The product received shout-outs from Oprah Winfrey, Howard Stern and other media luminaries. When major chains including Walgreens, CVS and Walmart took notice, he signed on with a venture capital firm to expand the company in 2008. But the deal quickly soured as the new owners changed Perry’s invention and shut him out of decision-making. Stock prices fell, Perry says.

That is the bad news. The good news is that the bad news has been an enormous boost to his current company, Greensations, which he launched in 2010. The company produces natural healthcare products like Sinus Plumber pepper and horseradish spray and Wrinkle Butter, a wrinkle cream made using earthworm castings. 

And while the natural, USA-made products seem to be a hit with bloggers and customers who try them, it’s often Perry’s backstory of innovation, self-made success, failure and redemption that attracts the attention of trade press and retailers. “We [used] our backstory to gain the trust of retailers who rely on prior sales results,” Perry said. “For a new company, you don’t have a proven sales record, but having a founder who actually built a national brand [got] our foot in the door.”

Perry’s story is broadcast via social media communications and by bloggers who are invited to try and review his products. Consumers love the story, too. After posting a picture of himself and a blurb about Sinus Buster at the bottom of Greensations’ homepage, bounce rates from the site dropped by 50%, Perry said. 

This article was published in April 2013 and has been updated. Photo by

Emma Johnson is a business journalist, gender-equality activist, and founder of the world's largest community of single moms, WealthySingleMommy.com. Emma and her best-selling book, The Kickass Single Mom, and her organization, Moms for Shared Parenting, have been featured in hundreds of national and international media outlets.